Today sees the start of the Royal Highland Show - the four days in June each year that showcases the best of farming, food and rural life. It'll come as no surprise that many bring their prized livestock to be judged in the hope of winning the accolade of 'Best in Show'. But did you know that it's not just livestock under scrutiny from the judges? Soil is also vying to be top. Ken Loades from the James Hutton Institute tells us more...

Ken Loades, The James Hutton Institute
June 22, 2017

It is fair to say that every farmer knows the importance of their soil for growing crops, maintaining pasture and for both storing and filtering rainwater…..the question is what do they win for all their hard work? Since 2013 The James Hutton Institute, in association with the National Farmers Union Scotland, Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs and the Soil Association, has run a competition where farmers can enter a sample of soil for judging and an opportunity to win the prestigious Quaich for Best Soil in Show at the Royal Highland Show.

Farmers, engineers and gardeners (to name but a few) know the value of having good soil. And when you consider it takes 200-400 years to make a single centimetre of soil you can see why. It is easy to forget that more microbes live in a teaspoon of soil than people on the planet, which is why Charles E Kellogg, former head of the US Bureau of Chemistry and Soil, said “there can be no life without soil and no soil without life”. It has been estimated that we lose about 2.2 million tonnes of soil a year so you can start to see why it’s so important that we manage it well.

Each year three soil scientists judge soil submitted for the Best Soil in Show competition but the real question is ”how exactly can you judge my soil?!” It always starts with a visual assessment - basically a good look and feel. Soil does so many more things than just growing crops so we look at a few of the many things that indicate good soil. Visual assessment is the first stage and, surprisingly, usually a pretty accurate predictor of the final winner. You can visually assess your own soil by using the VESS method. We have had soils submitted that have clearly come from allotments or have been sieved; these are quickly identified and removed!

Once we have argued discussed the merits of each sample, the top and runners up samples from three different categories (soils submitted by young farmers, organic farmers and conventional farmers) go on to the next stage. Soils making the cut are then tested further for chemical properties and other more advanced measurements. This stage ensures that it’s not just the best looking soil that wins but also the best managed.

After summarising the merits of the samples we decide on the best organic soil, best soil from a young farmer and the best soil submitted (The Best Soil in Show!). Each sample that makes it through to the final round receives a report on their soil, with the winners announced at The Royal Highland Show. This year’s Best Soil in Show winners will be announced tomorrow (Friday 23 June) by the James Hutton Institute, with prizes being presented by Andrew McCornick, NFUS President, and Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association.

If you would like to submit a sample yourself to see if you can win this prestigious prize next year please contact us and we will make sure we send you dates and details for submission. It’s free to enter so get sampling!


Visiting the Royal Highland Show?

Make sure you stop by The James Hutton Institute’s stands. You’ll find them on Avenue Q, where scientists will be on hand to explain more about the Institute’s research, and also in the RHET Children’s Discovery Centre, with plenty of activities to get children involved in the science behind our food.

You should also visit the Greener Scotland Tent on 4th Avenue where you'll find loads of great family activities including the Wriggle worm game.

The Soil Association Scotland have a great programme of events on at this year's show. Why not join them for their famous Organic Breakfast, stop by to listen to a talk or get your soil questions answered over a cup of tea. Find full information on the Soil Association Scotland website.


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